07 Jan A Mother’s Heart
Author’s note: I found this short story in my drafts. I have no idea in what context I once wrote it, but I liked that it is about a Hasidic woman’s interiority, so I decided to share it.
As I rushed to the big freezer on the small terrace and told my son to wait there, I’ll get him some food, I wondered what I could talk to him about. He looked like he didn’t need the honey cookies I was about to give him, the frost in their plastic baggie fogging over. He’d gained weight. His beardless chin, it was hanging down a little. His eyes, they were rimmed. He needed a nice word, that’s what he needed.
“How’s work?” I asked as he sat on the chair, jeaned legs sprawled open, the smell of cigarettes—oh, good God, hashem hu rachaym. Cigarette smell from my own son!
He said it was good. He said it was all good. The same. He was still at the copying place. I said he must be good if they kept him so long. I hoped it’d make him feel better. Poor thing. Thirty years old, divorced, never sees the child. Never. Off in the world on his own. Who knew where he lived or how he spent his days? I didn’t want to know. That cold, brutal world brought him back home to his sweet Hasidic fourth floor apartment in Williamsburg only twice a year or so, each time looking older, lonelier, still at the copy place. Poor child. Nebuch.
What can a mother do for a child like that, who had all but destroyed himself in adolescence, but pray? Pray, a few chapters of psalms each dawn before the other children awake, a few tears, a bit of praise. And now, a bag of honey cookies. What did he need honey cookies for if he had gained ten pounds?
“Your boss must really like you,” I argued, “to keep raising you. Meilech—you’re good.”narhe
“Meh,” he said and shook his head, and the awkward little yarmulke, out of shape and sitting like a tiny birthday hat on his head, fell onto the shoulder of his leather jacket. He put it back on again.
For eight years, he had been living like this, and it had only gotten worse. First, he came, maybe with a trimmer beard, maybe. He wore contacts. Smelled like, heaven forbid, a bottle of plums. That’s how my sweet Meilech’l, once all crisp side curls and wide-eyed, that’s how he smelled. Then it was polos. Then the jeans. And he didn’t look like a Jew spirit anymore, and the neighborhood kids think now he’s just a goy who speaks Yiddish. He told me about some computer software he was creating.
“You are good at these things,” I said encouragingly, and he straightened the gingham tablecloth.
“Man, Mammi, I missed the smell here, Mammi.”
My heart twanged. Of course he did. Of course he did. But how could I help him if he chose to run off for better glicken, greener pastures, to live somewhere who knew who, alone, walk around alone, no wife, no children, at the narishe copy place?
“Meilech!”my mother called, nearly falling over her cane. She’d just gotten up, put her dentures in, and was heading for the table for the tums and to give him a talking to.
Meilech winked at me.
“Bubby! Shalom Aleichem! How are you, Bubby? You are looking bee-you-tiful!”
Oy. That’s my son. Fancy mensch.
“Meilech.” I said, warning him gently.
“Bubby has a healthy glow, that’s all I’m saying.”
“YEAH, YEAH, IT’S VERY COLD! SO DOES THAT MEAN…”
“I SAID!” Meilech said deeply and slowly, enunciating, “You have a healthy glow.”
“WHAT KIND OF CHILD DOESN’T VISIT HIS MOTHER, EH, MEILECH? YOU HAVE CHILDREN YOURSELF, DON’T YOU?”
Meilech winked. He smiled just a little to me, and then he didn’t look like my Meilech’l at all, just some person. Someone I didn’t recognize. But then he was holding my mother’s hands, his firm big hands in her wrinkled ones, his brown eyes where hers were lost in their sockets, and he took her reprimanding with the silence with which he carried himself almost always.
“I’ll be going now,” he said later. “Thanks for the cookies. I missed your cooking.”
I was so glad I could give him something.
“Enjoy it. Let me walk you to the door.”
He was a little stooped, I noticed, as I followed behind him, still a foot taller than me, and so much narrower. At the elevator, he sighed while we waited.
“I’ve been depressed.”
I hit my chest.
Poor thing, I thought. He shrugged. Shook a cigarette out of a box.
“Don’t light that thing here!”
He clucked, nah, then said,
“Just been having a hard time getting myself together.”
A mother’s heart, a mother’s heart, to see a child destroyed! Who can understand? To fall from the heights of a beautiful family with so much pride, to this. Nothing had prepared me for this challenge in life. Every day I prayed I would survive it. And at every physical, the EKG went so wild, I never knew if I would.
“Listen,” I said. I didn’t want to lecture. I knew he didn’t want me to lecture him about his secular ways. I just wanted to help him.
“Listen Meilech. I know how you feel. There are days that are hard. But you know what I do? I pray. I pray to our sweet God, to our sweet, good God, I pray my heart out. And it helps me.”
He looked at his sneakers while I spoke, as an elevator with those loud black girls from down the hall closed and left without him. He didn’t say anything. The problem was he was stubborn, too contrarian, too determined to do his own thing. If I said pray, he would intentionally not. But as I spoke, I sensed he was listening. He could hear I spoke from my heart. Oh, how I wanted to help him! Having twelve children made struggling with one no less difficult!
He bent my hand and with the honey cookies swinging, he kissed it, looking so much taller, bigger, making me the stout small Hasidic bubby, almost. And when the elevator door closed, I thought I saw tears in his eyes, as if he’d softened, big Meilech.
I returned to fix my mother some soup and get the dinner ready, and I thought to myself in the kitchen as a lecturer spoke, and all the while, I felt a small joy inside. That feeling when you know you helped someone. I knew Meilech had needed me to tell him that. He didn’t need to suffer so. But didn’t a mother know her child’s heart? Didn’t I know what he felt? Hadn’t I felt it, this depression, when he got divorced and when he left to be free of God’s yoke? I did. How it lightened my heart to cry to God. To know he listened.
Later, at night, when my Avrumy, seventeen and scrawny, left his dinner untouched, all my good feelings disappeared. A voice in the back of my mind nagged with the devil’s ferocity, saying, you’re losing another one, and I forgot my own advice. I went down to the park where I spoke to neighbors, until, after speaking about Mrs. Green who was recently diagnosed with cancer at the delivery of the child, I forgot about Avrumy’s not eating.
But Avrumy didn’t eat the next night either. I thought I remembered that he often said he wasn’t hungry, but I had a tendency to imagine things. When I went to Chaya Baila, my married daughter’s, apartment to see the dress she got herself for a sister in law’s wedding, I returned with clarity. And then I knew. I knew I was worrying too much; I knew I should let it go.
I woke with a start at dawn, my husband snoring loudly in the bed beside me, calloused feet sticking out at either end of his nightgown. It was still dark in the city, with sparse twinkles of lights all over. My heart, it ached. It ached the way it did for Meilech so many mornings. It ached, it could tear right through my nightgown. It ached the Meilech ache.
He would soon need to get married—he was turning 18 in June. The matchmakers would call. He had a decent reputation, he did. But it was like a train wreck was happening while he slept, all black haired payos and bald head with the white sleep yarmulke. He was lethargic, he was disinterested. He had no appetite. He also had nerve problems.
And then my heart did that thing again, and I couldn’t breathe. I jumped out of bed and was hardly able to stick my arms through the sleeves of my robe, one hand clutching the open buttons of the nightgown, the holes worn down from years of opening it to nurse the babies now grown. I went to the small kitchen. I lit a candle for Reb Mordeche Chernoble, the great Hasidic scion, may his soul rest in peace. I lit a candle for Rebbe Reb Elimelech from Lizensk, after whom Meilech’l was named, and opened my tear-stained, weary psalms, and said in my heart in the purest Yiddish: God, I am one woman, sixty two years old. I brought twelve Jewish souls into this world. I love them dearly. But see, I am still just a woman who needs reading glasses to see the words, who needs your courage to see the way. Help me. Help my Avrumy. Help my Avrumy so he shouldn’t be lost like Meilech.
My arms were weak from exhaustion when I poured the water for the tea, but my heart was soothed. It was true, I wished I was a better woman. It was true I wished no one, especially that rotten neighbor who could spend one elevator ride talking all about her son’s real estate profits and investments and honors, would know that something was off with Avrumy. But so it was. I was human. God knew my heart. I tried, I so tried to better myself.
“It’s Meilech!” Chaya shouted through the door, down the hallway, as I was looking at pictures of Mrs. Ketruptzky’s new baby. She had been telling me about the child’s aunt who, poor thing, went completely off the rails and is now on mental meds, God forbid.
“Mammi, Meilech is calling.”
I didn’t let my surprise show. Meilech rarely called. When he did, I always worried that there was bad news, even though he had already been divorced, he had already shaved his beard. What worse news could he bring? Still. A mother’s heart.
To Mrs. Krauss I said, “My son, on the phone,” as if that was nothing at all.
Inside, trying to contain my surprise, I said, “Meilech!”
“Hi Mammi,” he replied. “How are you? How’s Tatti?”
How I hate when they keep me in suspense!
“Good. What’s up with you?”
“Listen, do you happen to have your cheese latke recipe? I’ve told a friend about it and I thought I’d whip some up.”
I rummaged in the upper cabinets among old pieces of paper and a heap of useless index cards in a fancy box someone once gave me as a gift. What a strange phone call. I read him the recipe, and he wrote it down.
“I loved when you made those,” he said.
He remembered something I didn’t. The time I made some just for him. What a mood he was in.
So very strange.
“I started an SSRI for depression. I was really struggling with it.”
“Yeah, I saw,” I told him. And for some reason, I wasn’t upset at all that my son was on mental meds. And I thought, perhaps, perhaps I was becoming the person I wanted to be. The person who just didn’t care what the Greenfields and Glicksteins said about her.
“I’m finally going out again,” he said, and I said it was great, hoping he wouldn’t go into detail. I just couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t hear the garbage. Men. Women. Mingling. Being so…it disgusted me, the whole thing. So I asked what the side effects of the medication were, as if this was all just a sore throat.
“Hm.” He seemed to laugh, then said, “Really, I don’t have any side effects. It’s such a safe medication, so many people use it, it’s really a shame not to try it.”
Nebech, my poor child.
It was days later, maybe weeks, when I tried to remember the name of the medication. This time, I had another one of my dawn jolts from bed, one of those moments I realized all over again. Avrumy was overweight. One of those moments my hands shook too much for me to light the candles over the gas range.
I called him. I just called Meilech.
“Avrumy is struggling. I’m worried.” I said.
I’d never have told this to any of the other children, but Meilech, he was such a basketcase that I couldn’t care less.
“I hear you. I know how it is,” he sighed. “Mammi, don’t let him suffer. Take him to a psychiatrist.”
It was terrifying. What about his match prospects, what if he became another mental case?
“Mammi, make it discreet?
Avrumy was lying in bed Shabbes morning. His father had gone to synagogue, his sisters were playing downstairs, and I told him.
“Avrumy, I made an appointment for a special doctor.”
He stared at me at the door.
“You seem… you are not yourself. It’s not a big deal, it’s just to check that everything is okay.”
Dr. Gordon was in Flatbush on 6th Avenue. He promised complete confidentiality. I decided I’d take a taxi, so no one could spot us on the bus. If this got out, that my son went to a psychiatrist, he’d never find a decent girl.
Dr. Gordon had one couch, so Avrumy stood near the lamp while I shared the couch with my shopping bag of new sewing materials. He was a real anti-Semite, Dr. Gordon. He looked at us like Aisow looked at Jews, asked questions that were inappropriate. It all made me feel very uncomfortable.
He asked me,
“Does he ever threaten violence?”
Avrumy spoke much less English than I did, and I was hoping he didn’t understand.
“Do you have suicidal thoughts?”
Avrumy looked at me, at the doctor, at me.
Dr. Gordon asked,
“Do you have thoughts about death and dying?”
He looked at me and asked in Yiddish,
“Vuz zugt er?”
Good grief, go translate that to your child.
“Are you moreh shchoyreh, very down?” I asked.
He shrugged. Meilech’s brother.
I finally asked Dr. Gordon if we could just talk in private. He looked up from his computer and agreed with a shrug.
“Listen,” I said, “my other son said that there is a medication a lot of people take that doesn’t have side effects really. Wouldn’t make him dazed. Zolonsty, maybe?”
We got a prescription. I’m not a big believer in these endless medicines, but something worked. God’s mysterious ways. A bit of doctor’s help, a weekly trip to Flatbush, a lot of prayer. On the taxi rides, I shmoozed with Avrumy, and oftentimes he would laugh at my stories and his pale cheeks with their little bits of black beard would light up bright pink and he’d seem so much healthier.
No one knew, except Avrumy, not even my husband, coming and going from B&H Photo every day without understanding a mother’s heart, that Avrumy took one little pill of 50 mg every morning. No one knew, and I know no one did, because the matchmakers called with fine girls, pretty, skinny—chinush—good figures, teachers in school, fresh and eighteen and rosy cheeked.
Because Avrumy ate. He spoke more. He laughed more. He seemed to look forward to our appointments, I looked at him as he sang the Shabbes zemiros and all I could think was God does not abandon his children.
So the day came.
“Avrumy,” I said, looking up, because he was now so much grown, “a matchmaker proposed a very nice girl. They want to see you.”
He was shy and sweet. Through the doorway, I watched him talk to the young girl in the ponytail. They looked so sweet and innocent—what did they know about life and the suffering of raising a family? How simply joyously they shone!
At the engagement party, so many people filled the apartment, everyone in the dining room in black hats and coats, you could hardly tell them apart. Except Meilech, who sat with his baby niece on his lap and ate pistachios, a bit in his own world.
“That’s their son who went off,” I overheard one girl whisper, and a mother’s heart, the funny thing about a mother’s heart, is that it could heal too, I guess. Because it didn’t cave in on itself.